Let's Make Love Bloom
Today, Stephen showed up for class, and everyone was very bad about keeping their worry in check.
I had shown up for class extra early that day at Romana’s request—her goal was to “warm up against my scrub ass” in Halo before Joe showed up and really put her through her paces. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a slouch at the game by any means, but Romana’s a regular monster, so I’m not sure practicing against me actually did her much good. But hey, as long as she’s happy and good to kick Joe’s ass, then I’m happy, too. Their one-sided rivalry was an unbridled source of joy in my life, and I would always immediately jump at the chance to do anything to facilitate it. We were a whole forty minutes early and spent a good twenty minutes going one-on-one, and while I never managed to down her, I was pretty proud of myself on the few occasions when I managed to land a couple shots.
“Damn, girl, you’re getting good,” Romana said after one such occasion. “Keep this up, and you might actually be able to take down Joe one day.”
“But not you, though?”
“Not a chance, pal.” And I believed her.
Students started filtering in during the half hour before class, including the bulk of our group, and to everyone’s surprise, while Romana was taking sadistic pleasure in ruining Joe’s hopes and dreams, just five minutes before class started Stephen walked in and sat down right to me, acting calm and pleasant like nothing had happened.
“Morning, everyone,” he said as he booted up his computer, and my eyes might’ve been tricking me but I could swear he was smiling. The man was in a downright good mood, and everyone was confused.
“Hey,” I said, not sure what else to say, and while everyone else was trying really hard not to stare, their constant back-and-forth glances were making their thoughts very obvious.
“Oh hey, Sara, can I talk to you after class?” His tone was perfectly innocent and innocuous—maddeningly so. “I’ve got something I want to show you.”
“Yeah, sure, of course,” I said. Whatever was on his mind, it was clear that he wanted to talk, and I was not about to let this opportunity slide. At the front of the room, the TA stood and clapped his hands, signaling the start of class. Before I could focus on him, though, I felt a tug on my sleeve. Glancing over, I saw Romana give me a thumbs up before leaning in to whisper something in my ear.
“I’ll make sure we all piss off, give you two some space,” she said, and pulled back.
“Thanks,” I said with a nod. So then, all I had to do was wait.
I don’t think I absorbed a single lesson that was taught during the whole class period. The entire time, I was fraught with worry, all too conscious of Stephen’s tiny yet enormous presence in the seat next to me. It was driving me insane how he seemed perfectly calm, able to focus on class while I was busy sweating up a storm. What the hell was he thinking? Was he still upset or what? What in the world did he want to show me, and how did that take precedence over our current situation? And then what the hell was I going to say to him to try to make things less weird? I still wasn’t quite ready to just blurt out the truth, even though that would probably make things simpler, but aside from that, what else could I say that I hadn’t already? Was our friendship already doomed? Thoughts like that kept bouncing around my head right up until the end of class, and before I knew it everyone else had filtered out and Stephen and I were alone. Whatever the length of time was between us being alone and me actually realizing it I could not tell you, but I would put money on it being long enough to be awkward. As soon as I was able, I spoke the first thing that came to mind to break the silence, but even that took a few moments to come up with.
“So, where have you been?” I asked.
“Right, sorry for disappearing like that,” Stephen said; as he spoke, he was pulling out and booting up his laptop. “Really bad timing, I know, but, you know, life happens. My, uh… my mom got in a car accident. She’s fine, don’t worry, but I was on hospital duty for a while and helped take care of her when she was discharged. But now she’s up on her feet, so we’re all good. But, while that was all stressful and stuff, it did give me time to cool down from what happened at the library, think about things, and work. And uh… well, I did this.” He pulled up some files on his computer and showed me something familiar yet new. I’d never seen it before but I recognized it because we’d discussed it: environment tilesets for the game. Brown and green patterns of grass and earth which could be matched and layout out together to form paths and platforms for our characters to walk on. Patches of white and blue to form the sky and clouds. He even showed up some more intricate spritework for larger in-game objects, like trees and a waterfall. He talked me through all of his work as he went through it, but the whole time, I just had one question on my mind.
“Stephen, this is all great and incredible and I love it,” I said. “But… do you not want to talk about what happened?”
“Hang on, I’m getting to it,” he said, and highlighted another file. “So if we’re still doing the whole parallax scrolling thing, I’ve got one last element, what’d be the most distant part of the background, that I sort of went and made on my own, I don’t know if you’d want to put it anywhere but, well, here it is.” And he opened it: it was a hazy cityscape, tall skyscrapers so far back that they were no more than five pixels wide, their windows little more than white dots along their height. And emerging out behind the center of the city and stretching out into the sky was a faded yet full rainbow, which wouldn’t be conspicuous save for the glaring lack of rain clouds, let alone rain. Indeed, the sky for this particular background was empty, save for the distant stain of the sun. If this was real life, it would be impossible for that rainbow to be, but in his work, there it was.
“And wait for it,” he said as he pulled up one last file. “Here’s the kicker.” The last thing he pulled up was a simple interaction animation between two of the player character sprites: it had the two come together in a stiff hug, twirl around a bit, and had their pixelated faces come together and seem to merge as their eyes closed. In other words, they kissed. And if that wasn’t subtle enough, as they did so, a little heart appeared and throbbed just above them. Set against that rainbow background, it was all comically unsubtle.
“So after cooling for a bit,” he said. “You know, I put two and two together and realized who you are and how exactly I’d messed up and thought about what I could do to, I guess, make it up to you. So I just got to work doing what we talked about and figured, while I was at it, I’d do a little bit more. The thing is, Sara, I still like you, still like working with you, and I don’t want to lose that. I know I made things weird, and I’m sorry about that, but if possible, I’d like to still keep being friends, if that’s okay with you.
“Oh, Stephen…” I said, and there were a million things I wanted to say to him right then. I’d like to say that first and foremost I was elated that he was pretty much feeling the same way that I had been, but actually, a more base concern took priority: “How did you figure it out?” Relatively free though I may be on campus, I was still in the closet, even among the friends I hung out the most with. And the longer I kept up that practice, the sillier I knew it was, but still, some deep, old fear kept me clinging to it.
“Look, Sara,” he said, a sly grin coming across his face. “The only reason it took me until I’d made a fool of myself to figure it out was because I’m dense as a brick when it comes to that stuff. Just because you don’t go around saying it out loud doesn’t mean you aren’t broadcasting the fact that you’re gay to anyone with eyes. I mean, have you looked in a mirror lately?” That wasn’t a very strong argument, but to be fair, it also wasn’t wrong. Just because my folks refused to see what they didn’t want to see didn’t mean that what I was saying with my appearance wasn’t clear as day to everyone else. I’d often wondered if I was too stereotypically butch—does this mean I was right? Maybe I should regress to my thick eyeshadow phase. (Though that had made for my absolute worst yearbook photo, so perhaps not.) “That, and I called Miles the next day and told him what happened and before I even thought of it he just said out of nowhere that he’d always assumed you were a lesbian, and right when he said that I was like ‘oh, it all makes so much more sense now.’ So yeah.”
“Okay, but you realize you’re engaging in stereotyping, right?”
“Yeah, and if I’m wrong you have my deepest apologies. Am I?”
“…No.” That simple word was hard to say, but it was the closest I’d come to telling anyone but Masashi the truth, and that, at least, felt like a step forward.
“So there you have it,” Stephen said, gesturing at his laptop screen. “I’m sorry for messing up, I want to keep working with you, will you still be my friend?”
“Stephen…” I shook my head and sighed. “You have nothing to apologize for. I should be the one saying sorry for being so clammed up and causing all this confusion and hurt in the first place.”
“I mean, that would have made things easier, for sure,” Stephen said. “But I don’t blame you or anything, I get it, that’s stuff not easy to be open about.”
“My man, you don’t even know the half of it.”
“My folks are Catholic.”
“Yeah.” And we both laughed. “Well hey, listen. Thanks for being so cool about this, it really means a lot, and yeah, of course, I’d love to keep being your friend.” Heaven knows how Padre would react if he knew I still wanted to hang out with the guy I rejected, but you know, what he thinks or may think doesn’t really matter. I was just so incredibly happy that things had turned out as well as they had. Honestly, it seemed too good to be true; but maybe sometimes, too-good things can just be true, no ifs, ands, or buts. Please, just let this too good thing be true.
Stephen and I only cleared out of the room once students for the next class started appearing. We talked about a lot of things. We had our first meeting for the game in a while; I hadn’t thought about how the various player characters might interact, and with him showing me that animation ideas were starting to crop up and I said I’d brainstorm. When that was over, I was able to vent to him about a lot of the anti-gay nonsense I’d had to keep my mouth shut for over the years both at home and at church. It was good to have an ally who was just there to listen and be supportive instead of, like Masashi, suffering through much of it with me. While Masashi was still the most invaluable presence in my life, I did on occasion feel a reluctance to just straight up rant to him about the things we both went through. There was a strange catharsis to being able to do that with someone who was otherwise uninvolved, and by the time I had aired all the most egregious crimes I had witnessed, I was feeling a lot better about myself. We had also long since evacuated the building and had started walked toward the nearest cafeteria for lunch.
“By the way,” I added, “I hope this goes without saying, but—”
“My lips are sealed,” Stephen said. Apparently he’s also a mind reader now. Hey, good for him. I may have added one more guy to my list of trusted confidants, but I still wasn’t in any hurry to have it grow, especially without my say-so. If I was going to be more open, it was going to have to be on my own terms, in my own time.
“Thanks. And hey, sorry we sort of glossed over this earlier, but how’s your mom doing?”
“Oh yeah, she’s doing fine,” Stephen said. “Like, she had a big old gash in her thigh, and she’ll probably be leaning on that crutch for another month or two, but yeah, she’s full of life as always.”
“That’s good. Glad to hear it.”
“Yeah. And you know, funnily enough, I think it was because of her that I was able to bring myself to talk to you like this.”
“Yeah?” We stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and retreated into the shade of a nearby tree as Stephen recalled what his mother had done.
“She’s great, you know. Dad walked out on us when I was too young to remember, and all my life, she’s done everything in her power to make sure I was happy and comfortable. Always working at least two job and still carving time out in the day to hang out with me and make sure I was doing okay. Honestly, she’s too good at being a mom. It’s like it’s her superpower.”
“Damn, making me jealous over here. Hey, can we trade moms?”
“Not a chance in hell.”
“Man, now you’re just being stingy.”
“Yes I am, and I’m okay with that.” Stephen plucked a small acorn off the grown and twirled it in his hand. “Anyway… what was I saying?”
“Something about mom being inspiring you?”
“Right. So we don’t have a very big family, obviously, so when she had her accident it was only Grandma and me who could take care of her. We took turns staying by her side in the hospital, and even when we got home I made it my mission to make sure she didn’t have to do so much as worry about a single meal. And the whole time, you know what she kept telling me?” Though I was tempted, I refrained from providing a snarky response. “She kept saying, ‘what the hell are you doing, wasting your time worrying about me? You should be in school. Stop worrying about things outside your control, and go live your damn life already.’”
“Damn, she really said all of that?”
“Well, some parts of it here and there.” He let the acorn fall back to the dirt. “Point is, after talking with her and talking with Miles, I knew that I couldn’t just sit on my ass and mope. So I didn’t, and that’s that, really.”
“That’s… that’s pretty awesome, man. You’re pretty awesome.”
“Ah, don’t mention it.” Stephen got to his feet and brushed the dirt from his pants. “Well, shall we? I’m starving.”
“Yes, please,” I said, and we headed off to the cafeteria.
Most of the rest of the day was nice. Stephen and I met with the rest of the group at the cafeteria—though they had already finished their lunch, they’d decided to wait around for us, and just like that we were all back in our normal routine of having a bunch of laughs just dicking around. During the downtime after my next class, I texted Masashi to let him know the good news, and we planned to meet up and head to the usual place for dinner. Just to kill what little time remained until then, I swung over by the library and plugged away at my game just a bit more; having already sketched out a few drafts for the design of the first level and now having a few environment assets to plug in, I was finally able to start piecing it all together. It was finally starting to look like an actual game, which was just incredible. I tell you, I was just in a persistent state of glee.
When 5:30 rolled on by, I met up with Masashi in the library parking lot, and as we drove on out of campus I regaled him with all the details I hadn’t been able to over text.
“Well, that’s a huge relief,” he said once I was done. “I’m glad it turned out okay.”
“Not half as glad as I am, pal.” I had reclined back in the chair, hands behind my head, feet up on the dashboard, just full-on posing like some full-of-themselves teen. The mood was just swell enough where doing that didn’t feel totally humiliating.
“‘Pal?’ Since when am I ‘pal?’”
“Uh…” He’s right. The hell am I saying? Pretty sure that word had never left my mouth up until that very moment. “Romana must be rubbing off on me.”
“Friend from class. Stylish chick, kind of cocky, but if I’m being honest she’s earned it.”
“What, you into her?”
“Nah, too scary. And she’s got a boyfriend, so, yeah.”
“My deepest sympathies.” As he spoke, he bowed his head in a gesture of respect. If we weren’t at a red light, I might’ve transformed into a backseat driver and freaked out; as it was, it was just embarrassing.
“Oh, shut up.”
We continued our banter as we pulled into the Steak ‘n Shake parking lot, too caught up in our conversation to realize that the parking lot was conspicuously empty—more so than usual, I mean. There were always at least two or three cars parked somewhere around. That evening, it was only us. Our obliviousness prevailed right up until we got to the door, tried to pull it open, and couldn’t.
“Huh?” Masashi gave it another pull. Still nothing. “The hell?” Just as confused, I took a look inside, and all at once it hit me.
“Oh, shit,” I said. The inside was dark, empty. The chairs had all been stacked on top of the tables. Yesterday’s trash still lay on the floor. And most importantly, a little notice had been taped just inside the front door: a notice that the restaurant had closed and the location was open for sale.
It was closed. Our private little get-together was gone. Forever.
“Damn, this sucks,” Masashi said. “I would swear they were just open the other day, too.” He’s right. It was so sudden. I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. The place had never had that many customers. Bad location, maybe. Really, it was only a matter time. But so soon, so suddenly? I just wasn’t ready.
“Want to head somewhere else?” Masashi asked, tapping me on the shoulder.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Just give me a moment.” I was shocked to find out how much this hurt me. And I know it shouldn’t. It’s just a stupid chain restaurant, I know I shouldn’t care. Hell, if the location gets bought up by some mom-and-pop shop, the change’ll probably be a net positive for a world. And even if it stays empty forever, it’s not like anyone’s going to miss the food. But this place had been an escape for us for so long, somewhere we could feel comfortable and safe. To have it stolen from us like this without any warning… I didn’t like that. No, I did not like that one bit. Now, the world felt just a little bit less safe.
And the day had been going so well, too.